HC Deb 25 February 1986 vol 92 cc796-9
4. Mr. Hardy

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what additional resources have been provided to assist the elderly and the needy to purchase adequate heat during the recent periods of harsh weather.

7. Mr. Winnick

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if he will make a statement on the operation of the exceptionally severe weather payment system during the current winter.

The Minister for Social Security (Mr. Tony Newton)

There is an extensive range of heating additions for householders in greatest need, for example those over 65, the chronically sick and disabled, and families with a child under five.

The regulations also provide for single payments to claimants with extra fuel costs arising from exceptionally severe weather. Decisions whether there has been a period of exceptionally severe weather are for adjudication officers in the light of guidance from the chief adjudication officer.

I understand that in recent weeks well over 200 local offices have decided that the weather in their areas falls within the terms of the regulation.

Mr. Hardy

Is the Minister aware that that is a quite inadequate reply and does not respond to the question? It is clear that Ministers do not seem to be fully aware that this winter has been harsh and that temperatures have been unduly severe. Are they not aware that the suffering of many elderly and needy people makes the Government's provisions appear deplorably wretched?

Mr. Newton

For six years the Government have consistently shown their awareness of the problems of elderly supplementary pensioners in the winter. That is why we have massively increased the value of the extra regular weekly payments to help with heating costs over and above what the last Labour Government ever did.

Mr. Winnick

Leaving aside the complacency that we have just heard, is the Minister aware that welfare agencies estimate that about a million pensioners are now at risk from hypothermia due to this extremely cold weather? Should not the extra payment be made automatically to all those on supplementary benefit and help given to many pensioners on small incomes but who do not qualify for supplementary benefit? When will the Government show some humanity towards those who are suffering such immense misery because they do not have enough money adequately to heat their homes?

Mr. Newton

I repeat that the best and most effective way consistently to help elderly supplementary pensioners and others is by regular and extra weekly payments for heating. These payments have been greatly extended in their scope since the present Government came into office. They are now worth £140 million a year more in real terms than when the Administration supported by the hon. Gentleman left office. That is not a record of complacency.

Mr. McCrindle

I recognise the Government's good record on heating allowances in general, but is not the problem that the severe weather payments have to be paid after the event? There is no certainty that they will be paid even then. Will my hon. Friend turn his attention to ways of encouraging elderly people to heat their homes? At the moment they simply cannot know until sometimes well after the event whether they will fall within the appropriate definition as decided by the local DHSS office.

Mr. Newton

That is precisely my point. The best way to give pensioners and others the assurance that they need in such periods is the certainty of regular weekly help with heating costs, and that is what we have consistently concentrated on for many years.

Mr. Hirst

I appreciate what the Government have done about heating allowances, but will my hon. Friend bear in mind that freezing point is as cold in the west of Scotland as it is in the south-east of England? Is he aware that many Scots find it hard to justify a system of extreme weather payments which does not appear to treat all areas equally?

Mr. Newton

As I said in answer to a private notice question on the subject last week, I am aware of the anxiety expressed in Scotland last winter under the then system, and again this winter under the present system. I must repeat my initial statement, which is the truth about the legal position, that it is a matter for local adjudication officers. I understand that the adjudication officer for Scotland as a whole is considering the issue of further advice on the matter, and I shall ensure that his attention is drawn to the renewed anxieties expressed in the House this afternoon.

Mr. Wilson

I listened with sympathy to the Minister's answer, but does he not realise that this February is the coldest on record since 1947, and that last Friday the temperature in Scotland was 1 deg. less than in Moscow? Will it take another ice age to hit Scotland before the Government give it any help?

Mr. Newton

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the tone of his first few words. I have a report which appeared in The Scotsman yesterday about the weather in Scotland, and I have no doubt that the adjudication officer in Scotland has also seen it.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is better to insulate the homes of the elderly than to spend money on additional heating, much of which is lost through the roof or draughty windows? Will he, therefore, discuss with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy a possible joint approach, perhaps to divert some revenue expenditure from the social security budget into capital improvements?

Mr. Newton

As it happens, I discussed that very matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy last Friday in connection with the 220th effective insulation scheme opened by neighbourhood energy action groups in Wandsworth. On many occasions I have made it clear that a considerable amount of supplementary benefit money is being spent on draughtproofing materials, and that before making long-term changes in the single payments arrangements we shall wish to be assured that there is an adequate alternative to ensure the future of those schemes.

Mr. Frank Field

May I give the Minister a couple of examples which illustrate the urgency of the matter? One of my constituents is so cold at night that her doctor has to give her sleeping pills to help her to sleep. Another pensioner, who is bedridden and mortally ill, can afford only to keep his single bar fire on. When will the Government's actions match the urgency of the needs of so many of our pensioners?

Mr. Newton

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the particular problems of his constituents probably require the attention of authorities other than simply the local social security office. I hope that he has discussed the cases also with the local social services department, and, if necessary, the local health authority.

Mr. Baldry

I am sure my hon. Friend recognises that there is widespread anxiety about how the severe weather payment system operates. In the light of experiences this February, will he consider establishing a review in his Department to see whether the system can be improved?

Mr. Newton

We have consistently undertaken to keep the working of this regulation under review. The immediate problem is that the method of working it was changed just before Christmas by the chief adjudication officer, following a legal judgment by the social security commissioners. Indeed, a great deal of dissatisfaction was expressed in the House last year when an attempt was made to operate the system on a more consistent basis.

Mr. Foulkes

Does the Minister remember the reply that I received from his Department which showed that in the first six months of 1985 more old people died from hypothermia than in the whole of 1984? Is he aware that in Ayrshire during the past three weeks, every day except one has been colder than the average for February and that the temperatures last Friday night and last Sunday night were lower than the lowest ever recorded in Ayrshire in February? What other evidence does the adjudication officer need before he gives extreme weather payments and before more people die from hypothermia in 1986?

Mr. Newton

In line with what I have already said to the hon. Gentleman's Scottish colleagues, I shall ensure that his question, which is properly directed to adjudiciation officers, is drawn to their attention.

Mr. Bill Walker

When considering temperatures in Scotland, will my hon. Friend draw the attention of adjudication officers to the substantial variations in temperatures and in moisture saturation of the air, which is an important factor in regard to deaths among the elderly? Will he bear in mind that regional variations should be taken into account, because some parts of Scotland rarely get any snow?

Mr. Newton

I shall indeed draw that matter to the attention of those concerned.

Mr. Meacher

When will the Government acknowledge that, as now operated, the exceptionally severe weather payments system is a chaotic and arbitrary farce? Is the Minister aware that in virtually every area of the country it is now 4.5 to 5 deg. lower than the average for February, and that that has not been the case for the past 40 years—since the bitter winter of 1947? Will he now, as a matter of urgency, send out a circular to all DHSS offices to ensure that all the very elderly and the severely disabled on supplementary benefit get an immediate extra cash grant of at least £5 a week for heating while the severe cold spell lasts?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman at least acknowledges that the most effective way in which to help people is by regular weekly extra payments. Every supplementary pensioner householder aged over 85 now receives £5.45 a week, on top of the amount included in the weekly scale rate. The same is true for every long-term sick and disabled person on the long-term rate of supplementary benefit.

Mr. Kennedy

Does the Minister not feel pretty embarrassed that the system which he described last year as "weird and wonderful" has this year been replaced by a system that is clearly even worse? Is it not scandalous that people in the highlands and islands of Scotland receive not one penny, although they are suffering extremely bad weather conditions, as is the rest of Scotland? Can the Minister not do something more constructive than pass the matter off to the adjudication officer? Does he not recognise his responsibility?

Mr. Newton

My references to the adjudication officer are simply a state of the legal position. I shall, of course, draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of those concerned, as I have done for others of his colleagues from Scotland.